- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tim Thomas had something to prove.
The Boston Bruins goaltender had something to prove to himself. He had something to prove to the Bruins organization and his teammates. He had something to prove to the rest of the hockey world.
He proved it.
In the regular-season finale, a game that meant absolutely nothing in the standings, the Bruins beat the Washington Capitals in a shootout 4-3. Thomas was solid between the pipes and earned the win with 34 saves. He stopped Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's top goal scorer, five times and it was obvious Thomas was playing with a purpose.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league's top goaltender has had to watch from the bench as Bruins coach Claude Julien decided to go with rookie netminder Tuukka Rask down the stretch. Rask is 4-1-1 the past six games and he's played 15 of the last 16 games (12 starts) and is 8-4-1 during that span.
He will be Boston's goaltender in the playoffs.
Barring some unforeseen circumstances, it's very possible Thomas played his last game for the Bruins on Sunday. There have been rumors that general manager Peter Chiarelli will try to trade Thomas during the summer despite the remaining three years and $14 million on Thomas' contract.
Thomas is a very emotional player, but he didn't allow himself to think about the possibility of never playing another minute for the Bruins, the organization that gave him an opportunity to become a full-time NHL goaltender at the age of 31 during the 2005-2006 season.
"No," he said with a sigh. "I was focused on playing. At this point we're getting ready for the playoffs and that's where my focus is. I'll worry about the other stuff later."
Julien summoned Thomas into his office prior to Sunday's game at the Verizon Center to have a chat. Even before their conversation, Thomas was pumped to play this game and he proved it.
"He was great," Julien said. "We had a good chat before the game and our players were going to play hard to support him. We weren't coming here just to put in our time and we needed him to have the same attitude and he did. He competed hard and for a guy who hadn't played in a long time. What I saw is a guy getting better and better as the game went on."
Since March 11, a span of 16 games, Thomas played only three times and he was pulled in two of them.
"Considering I haven't been getting a lot of playing time, I felt I played well," Thomas said. "I'm really proud of the young guys they had in the lineup tonight; they gave a great effort. The veterans, too, they made my job a lot easier. I was very happy with the effort. It didn't have to be there the last game of the year that didn't mean anything, but it meant something to me."
The last time Thomas was in net for the Bruins, he allowed three goals on 14 Buffalo shots and was pulled from a game at the Garden. When he left the ice, some fans were booing. He definitely heard boos again on Sunday, but this time it meant he was doing his job by stopping the puck.
"It means I end the year winning in a shootout, instead of ending the year getting pulled against [Buffalo]," he said. "It's a big difference. It'll mean something if I'm called upon in the playoffs because it gives me something to build on.
"It's the last game of the year with a real young lineup, so realistically you could have just shrugged it off and it would have been OK anyway," added Thomas. "But turning out the way it did definitely has its advantages."
If he's disappointed or upset that the Bruins are going into the playoffs with Rask as the starting goaltender, Thomas isn't showing it. He's been very supportive of Rask's success.
"He's played exceptionally all year," Thomas said. "He's been great for our team."
If Thomas does have any frustrations, he took them out on the Capitals' Jason Chimera at 2:43 of the first period on Sunday. Chimera crashed the net and slammed into Thomas, who quickly dropped his stick and starting throwing punches with his blocker. He was given a double-minor penalty for roughing.
"If you come in like that with the puck, I still don't like it but that's allowed. But he lost the puck and just decided to come in," Thomas said. "Looking at the replay, I overreacted. It wasn't as bad as I felt like it was at the time. I haven't played in a while and I needed to do something to get myself in the game. It worked in the long run."
Not only did Thomas help the Bruins earn a worthless two points, he earned a lot more respect in the room with his teammates, especially when he protected himself.
"I think he's doing just fine," said Bruins pugilist Shawn Thornton. "It's probably a little easier with a blocker on, but he stood up for himself. He's a very emotional person. He wears his heart on his sleeve."
But he may not be wearing a B on his sweater much longer.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.